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Elementary Parent Corner

Fostering independence in young children


Young children's lives are filled with so many "firsts" — their first shaky steps, their first bites of solid food, the first time they sleep through the night. Often these milestones can seem like pure magic to parents. But did you know that these magic moments are also important first steps toward developing independence?

While some of these life-altering moments happen spontaneously for children, others need to be nurtured by parents and family members. Helping even the youngest of children learn to be more self-sufficient can have far-reaching benefits. Not only will their daily lives become richer, they will also be better prepared to take on the social, emotional and learning challenges that come with starting school.



Obviously, we're not suggesting that babies feed, diaper and bathe themselves. So what does independence look like during the early years? Here are some examples:


Birth to age one

Meeting all of your baby’s needs is the best way to help them feel safe and secure. This is particularly important when babies are very young and lack the language to let you know what they’re asking for. Despite theories to the contrary, research shows that babies cannot be spoiled with too much holding or snuggling. Instead, children who learn early on that they can count on mommy, daddy and others for help and comfort and that home is a safe place are more willing to take chances later on. They will also know that, though they might test their wings, they can touch back with their families and friends when they need help or can use a boost to their confidence.


Ways you can help:

Respond whenever your baby needs you. Create predictable routines around mealtime, bath time, book time and nap/bedtime. Baby’s firsts — pushing up to sit, stacking blocks, babbling with glee at the cat — are all cause for celebration. When you express pride in your baby’s accomplishments, you encourage your child to continue trying.


Age one

As toddlers begin to creep, crawl and walk, the world becomes theirs to explore. They will also begin to use more words and simple sentences. Undoubtedly, "No!" will begin to creep into their vocabulary. Instead of viewing this as disobedience, consider this as another independence milestone to be celebrated. Saying "no" signals that toddlers are beginning to understand they are individuals with their own wants and ideas.


Ways you can help:

Your job is to find a balance between your toddler’s growing need to explore and your need to keep your child safe, not to mention your need to keep order. Spend some time getting your home toddler-ready (e.g., removing breakables, padding sharp edges and corners, using outlet covers and safety catches inside cupboards).

Having an explorer in the house can be messy. As much as possible, try to make peace with up-ended magazine racks and overturned juice cups. Create baskets of toys or set aside a cupboard or two filled with child-safe pots and pans, boxes, board books, etc. for your toddler to explore. Make sure to change the selection of items frequently.

Build time into your day to let your children discover. Toddlers learn so much more when walking instead of being wheeled in a stroller through the park. Give toddlers the time to pull on their own socks — even if the ones they chose happen to be two different colors — rather than always being the one to pick what they’ll wear and dressing them.


Age two

As they grow, cooperation is key. More and more, toddlers want to try what mommy, daddy or older siblings are doing. Offer choices, within reason (e.g., "Would you like cereal or pancakes for breakfast?" "Do you want to wear the pink or the purple T-shirt?"). This can help toddlers feel they play an important role in the family and have some power over the decision-making.


Ways you can help:

Offer your toddler child-sized chores, such as helping sort and fold clean laundry or sweeping the floor with a dustpan and broom.

Know when to step in and lend a hand. Toddlers’ independence will ebb and flow, particularly at times of change, such as when they are sick or a new baby is brought into the family. When they ask, be prepared to help out. Knowing that they can return to you for comfort and help, even with a task that they have already mastered, can build more confidence and encourage children to take their next independent steps forward.


Ages three to five — the preschool years

During the preschool years, children become more and more capable of taking on new challenges. Childcare, preschool and play dates can offer children opportunities to practice spending some time away from you, meeting new people, making friends, sharing and working with others. These experiences can all help fuel their confidence and self-sufficiency.


Ways you can help:

As they get older and gain confidence, children can take on more tasks. Encourage them to help make simple meals. Peanut butter or cream cheese and jelly sandwiches are great "I made it myself" snacks. Let them choose their clothing for the day and practice buttoning, zippering and snapping. Setting the table can encourage responsibility. As a bonus, it’s also a great way for children to practice simple math skills, such as counting (five plates), sorting (knives, spoons and forks) and shape recognition (a square napkin is folded into a triangle.) Be ready to step in and help if children have tackled a job that’s just too difficult or if they can’t figure out how to move on.

As children's lives become busier with preschool, friends, sports and other activities, make sure to build some "downtime" into each day.

Time without any structured activities gives them freedom to play what they want and to learn how to entertain themselves.



Kindergarten and other primary grade teachers say that children who are encouraged to explore and take on personal responsibility during the early years are often more successful learners when they enter elementary school. Once they reach school age, children who have taken healthy risks and who are confident in their abilities are:

  • more willing to try new things, such as working in both large and small groups with children and teachers they don't know, introducing themselves to new classmates, tackling such new skills as sounding out letters or writing their names etc.;

  • more comfortable working by themselves;

  • less emotional when dealing with change, such as riding the bus to school, a longer school day and/or being away from their parents for the first time; and

  • better able to work out their differences with other children.


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